Cold weather claimed the lives of almost 500 elderly people in Northern Ireland last year.
That figure is actually down on the previous year's total but is still far too high according to Age NI, which described winter-related fatalities in the 21st century as “a disgrace”.
And the agency, which looks after the care of elderly people, has vowed to continue the battle against preventable deaths in winter time.
Research by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) shows that some 496 people died in 2011 from the effects of cold weather.
In 2010 — which had an extremely harsh winter — the figure was 741.
That represents a drop of roughly a third, but Age NI chief executive Anne O'Reilly insisted the 2011 figure leaves no room for complacency.
“We are encouraged by such a significant decrease in these figures because excess winter mortality is a preventable issue, largely through better insulated homes and greater awareness of the need to keep warm,” said Ms O’Reilly.
“Age NI is one of many organisations increasing awareness of the challenges that older people face in winter and delivering services to enable older people to access more financial support to help them survive winter.
“We are also encouraging people who care for older family members, friends and neighbours to get in touch to see what they’re entitled to.”
Earlier this week, the Belfast Telegraph revealed that our senior citizens are missing out on unclaimed benefits to the tune of up to £200m.
That’s one of the reasons why we have joined forces with Age NI to urge them to claim the benefits they are legally entitled to.
Our Feel the Benefit drive — running under the auspices of Age NI’s Spread The Warmth campaign — aims to encourage at least 100 pensioners to contact the organisation’s helpline this week.
This, in turn, will potentially unleash as yet unclaimed payments totalling, on average, £6,200 per annum per person, and £322,400 overall.
Across Northern Ireland, hard-pressed households are struggling to cope with soaring bills, and many face a stark choice between keeping warm and putting food on the table.
Last year, 24,000 people in the UK died of a cold-related illness.
Age NI has calculated that a successful benefits check can boost an older person’s income by, on average, £62 a week — or £3,224 a year — and that money could go a long way towards heating and eating.
There are 350,000 elderly people in Northern Ireland. It isn’t sensationalist to say that some will die simply because they didn’t have enough food or warmth in their lives.
With Christmas around the corner — and winter starting to bite — now is the time to take action.
‘Getting money to pay for mum’s care was big help’
By Claire McNeilly
It's not easy looking after a vulnerable parent.
North Down shop manager Claire knows how terribly distressing it can be, after her mum had a close shave with death last year.
She was under immense stress, juggling a demanding full-time job and looking after her 70-year-old mother, before she finally contacted Age NI.
“Mum is an insulin-dependent diabetic and she fell so ill overnight that I actually thought I was going to lose her,” said the 42-year-old.
“When she was discharged from hospital she had lost all her confidence and self-medication became a problem, even though she is a former nurse.
“I had to help her with her injections and that meant getting up four times during the night.
“After nine months I was |totally exhausted and as my partner works away a lot I ended up feeling so unhappy and so alone.”
Claire, an only child, said she was reticent about asking for help because her mother, with whom she shares a home, is a very private person.
“Mum didn’t want people running in and out of the house, so I had to find a balance between getting help and giving her the care she needed,” she said.
“Nobody in our family had ever had a benefit before and I didn’t even consider it as an option until I saw an advert for Age NI on television. I felt guilty abut phoning to check if it applied to us, but I knew I couldn’t go on any longer. I was on the verge of quitting my job and I had to do something.
“When the advisor told me my mum was entitled to £75 a week it meant that I could keep on working and pay for someone to come in when I’m not at home.”
She added: “Mum and I are really close and I was frightened I was going to lose her. But the money has made an amazing difference. It means that I can keep my job.
“And it has improved mum’s health, both physically and mentally, and given her back her confidence.”